Sterile or stirring? Britain’s love-hate relationship with new towns

Paternalistic social engineering or make-Britain-great-again utopianism? A new archive film collection takes a look at the UKs contentious postwar towns

” People sometimes say to me,’ You must get a terrific kick out of having been responsible for a huge thing like a new township ,'” said Sir Frederick Gibberd in an interview in 1982, 35 years after he organized the new municipality of Harlow.” Well, I get a lot of misery out of it, in fact. I go around thinking,’ My god, that’s unbelievably bad, and it could have been so good .'”

If that was what the designer supposed, gues how everyone else who moved to Harlow felt. The interview comes in a short film at the end of New Towns, Our Towns, a new collection of archive films from the Independent Cinema Office chronicling Britain’s pioneering postwar brand-new township progress- and our ongoing love-hate relationship with it. Paternalistic social engineering or make-Britain-great-again utopianism? Textbook example of the failures of macro modernism, or the type of bold, ambitious government initiative we need more of?

The project began in earnest with the New Towns Act of 1946, which sought to restore the nation’s housing stock after the second world war but likewise, in southern England, check the urban sprawl of London by enticing city-dwellers to modern accommodations outside the green belt. In the first phase, that required lieu such as Harlow, Basildon, Stevenage, Hemel Hempstead, in later periods, Peterborough and Milton Keynes– 22 townships in all.

Sir Frederick Girbberd, responsible for creating the brand-new municipality of Harlow, Essex, last-minute sorrowed potential impacts of cost-cutting on his design. Photograph: Jill Mead/ The Guardian

The scale employs today’s housing the purposes and hesitant “garden village” proposals to shame. Informed by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City movement and Corbusian modernism, the brand-new townships were a revolutionary proposition to put before a populace worn down by battle and bound to traditional architectural appraises, but who were also desperate for basic amenities.

Most of the movies in New Towns, Our Towns were determined under the auspices of public datum, but in retrospect are propaganda- often aimed at Londoners. Time and again, the messaging hammers residence that new municipalities were locates to raise class. Repetition epitomes include children in outdoor playgrounds, males frisking rugby on new tars, brutalist shopping mall, modern statues on themes offamily, and parties doing jarringly traditional acts such as Morris dancingagainst the modern landscape.

Basildon’s Brutalist town core in 1969. Photograph: Evening Standard/ Getty Images

The overriding visual theme, though, is Mother Pushing Pram: you’ll discern her in virtually every film, cruising alongside the traffic-less streets, parking outside the ever-so-convenient regional shops or mediating muddled build locates of neighborhoods yet to come. Harlow even made the moniker Pramtown, prepared in response to its high birth rate. In the 1950 s, a fifth of the population was under five years old.

The most overtly credible movie, and the only imaginary narrative in the compilation, is a 1951 short-lived titled A Home of Your Own. It performs Harry Locke( previously seen in the Ealing classic Passport to Pimlico ), as a Willesden bricklayer who happens to pass through Hemel Hempstead on a tutor trip-up, and starts to wonder why,” with all that space and air, people had to go on living as I did: me, the spouse and kids in two rooms in London .”

Harlow was so successfully sold to households that it gained the moniker Pramtown, thanks to its high birth rate. Photograph: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/ Alamy

Of course, he has to persuade the missus back home firstly. Then they have to apply, working the use sent to every London household. Their dark, cramped Willesden apartment is distinguished with the light-footed, comfortable, airy brand-new Hemel Hempstead terrace, with a garden to hang out the washing and” a real kitchen for me”, as the partner employs it.( The architecture might have been modern but the gender equality had a practice to go .)” It was like the end of the nightmare ,” she says.” At last-place we have been able to wake up .”

A little over the top, perhaps, but following the second world war, much of London’s room capital was either hovel residence or substandard: decrepit, overcrowded, soften, twilight, draughty, vermin-infested, with outside toilets , no central heating, little outdoor space and diabolical pollution. It really must have felt like stepping into a new world.

Slum casing in Hoxton, 1946. With much of London’s home asset in poor condition following the second world war, new municipalities braced out the promise of a better life for many. Photograph: Francis Reiss/ Getty Images

Not all brand-new townships are the same, but the evaluations levelled at them generally are. They are still looked down upon, scoffed for their lack of place, their soullessness. Traditional British towns and municipals changed organically around certain functions: a church or cathedral, a port, a university, a market, an industry. Their identities and cultural activities accrued over centuries. Building Rome in a era signify losing all that. You could drive anywhere in Milton Keynes within 15 instants, planners claimed, but there was nowhere to go. And if you didn’t conception driving, the car-centric grid program condemned pedestrians to ranging miles of underpasses in search of civilisation.

New townships “ve been able to” swept away the grunge and overcrowding of London, but they often threw out the good stuff too, the chaos, the proximity, the unpredictability, the quirk, its own history. Their modernist petri dishes are normally too sterile for culture to flourish in. The sentimentality is made home in another documentary, New Town Utopia, a feature-length documentary from 2018 focusing on the brand-new city of Basildon: one citizen remarks:” You can’t maybe be Dylan Thomas walking through Basildon town centre .”

Council dwelling in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, 1954. Photograph: Raymond Kleboe/ Getty Images

By the time those babes in the prams grew up into teens, the brand-new township disaffection began to set in. Crime paces began to rise, infrastructure began to crumble, and the jobs didn’t ever materialise as strategy, so laborers commuted to London. And some of that vaunted modernist house was, itself, substandard. Young beings, especially, felt alienated.

In Changing Places: Nearly New Town, the film revisiting Harlow in the 1980 s, the older citizens still should be considered it as a delightful sit to live but worry that it has become ” rougher “; younger ones complain there is nothing to do and nowhere else to go, and that they’d keep moving if they were able. And Gibberd laments how badly things went- not because of failures in designing but because of the constant cost-cutting. Harlow’s town hall for example, was supposed to be the dominant building,” a emblem of the communal life of the town”, says Gibberd, but fund parts signified they could only build it nine storeys high-pitched, instead of the intended 15 at the least.” The whole stuff has been done on a shoestring ,” he says. In design expressions, Gibberd, who continued to live in Harlow until his death in 1984, says he wouldn’t change a circumstance.” I think it operates .”

Depeche Mode in Basildon, Essex in 1980. Photograph: Fin Costello/ Redferns

We don’t have to come down on one side or the other. There is no final finding on the success of brand-new townships. They are still works in progress, and about 2.7 million people still live in them. From a town-planning point of view, Britain was doing the most exciting thing in the world. No non-eu countries in Europe undertook such an ambitious rebuilding intrigue, and many an apprentice planner from around the world has acquired the pilgrimage to Milton Keynes. For all the mockery of its concrete cows, Milton Keynes has consistently been one of the most economically successful municipals in the UK. And one of the most wonderful. They’ve even retrofitted some culture into the city, such as the revamped MK Gallery, “thats open” this year.

And if you couldn’t be Dylan Thomas walking through Basildon town centre, you could still be Depeche Mode– who came from the town, and were doubtless determined by its Ballardian sceneries. Today, supporters of the band procreate pilgrimages to Basildon. Added to which Basildon’s brutalist town centre now has a certain retro cachet to it. New towns have now acquired what they previously lacked: record, divergence, variety, perhaps even romance.

  • This article was edited on 15 May 2019 to correct the number of parties currently living in brand-new cities, erroneously territory as 27 million, rather than 2.7 million

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